For years, it seemed like barely anyone knew what pawpaws were. I, too, was in this camp of the pawpaw-oblivious, and I even grew up where this amazing fruit grows wild in leafy hardwood forests.
But that’s changing. People are pawpaw-curious, and they want to learn more about North America’s largest natuve fruit. Are you one of those people? Get set, because pawpaws are not just a thing you can eat. They’re a way of seeing the world. Once you know about pawpaws, it seems anything is possible.
If you’re an old hat to the ways of the pawpaw, baking an old-fashioned pawpaw pudding is a fine celebration of the Brigadoon that is pawpaw season.
What Are Pawpaws?
Unlike their other brethren in the Annoceae (custard apple) family, pawpaws (Asimina triloba) are not native to the tropics. One taste of a pawpaw and you’d never guess that, because they are a riot of banana, mango, and pineapple flavors.
Pawpaws are understory trees, typically no taller than 30 feet, though it’s possible to find ones that stretch skyward a few stories. They grow in a swath from southeast Canada down to the northern Florida panhandle, and as far west as the Mississippi River. The fruit, which is oblong and can usually fit easily in your palm, is pale green on the outside and easily blends in with the surrounding leaves in a late summer forest.
If pawpaws are so great, why don’t we see them in grocery stores? That’s the rub, my friend. Pawpaws have an alarmingly short shelf life, and are extremely delicate when ripe. To get your hands on them, you must either forage them, grow them, or have a trusty hookup.
Tapping Into the Pawpaw Mystique
This lack of access, for some, makes pawpaws all the more fascinating. Once I came across my first pawpaw, I was a goner. I even wrote a whole book of pawpaw recipes.
Pawpaws are now such a big part of my life that I measure the year by what the pawpaw trees growing in the woods near my home in southwest Ohio are doing. April brings their tiny, three-lobed maroon flowers; May delivers the luminous canopy of their green leaves; June offers inklings of young fruit. August and September are when the action is, rolling out stolen hours in the woods gathering the short-lived fruit before it rots. October is the poignant turning of their leaves to yellow-gold. And from November to the following April, the trees are bare and scrawny, offering no hint at the burst of life they will give forth in the months to come.
Eat your first pawpaw out in the woods, if you can. It’s a messy, feral experience you’ll never forget. If you don’t know where to get pawpaws and want the immersive experience of the pawpaw hunt, listen to this episode of The Sporkful.
Pawpaw Pudding, If You Please
Come late summer, I brave the brush and bugs and gather pawpaws to process their soft, golden flesh into pulp free of skin and seeds. Then I set to making a flurry of pawpaw recipes. One constant go-to? Pawpaw pudding, a classic Appalachian recipe.
Once baked, pawpaw pudding is extremely similar in texture to a crustless pumpkin pie, but the taste is a whole other ball of wax: You’ll get intriguing caramel notes mingled with that undeniable pawpaw tropicality. With a food processor, it takes only minutes to blitz the batter together. If you have only a few pawpaws, pawpaw pudding is a worthy recipe. To me, it tastes of the bittersweet weeks when daylight shortens and kids go back to school, yet long spans of the afternoon can still be sweltering with promise.
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